If you like your architecture to come with a strong dose of brutalism and lashings of retro styling, then you’ll love the Barbican. The Londonphile is a big fan but I am aware that many are not – the design of both the residences and the Arts Centre that makes up the Barbican Estate has divided Londoners for decades now. Love it or loathe it, the design is a momentous one, and while its groundbreaking use of concrete and brutalist aesthetics makes it a landmark complex, what I find most fascinating are the clever historical and architectural references scattered across the site.
The Barbican Estate was designed to re-populate the City of London, which had a tiny live-in population of just over 5,000 people following World War Two. The area had been so badly damaged during the Blitz that it was little more than a bombed-out wasteland. St Giles’ Church, which can be found in the middle of the complex, was more or less a shell and had to be significantly re-built. So what was once a very old area of London became a very modern one, although this modernity sits side by side with structures like St Giles’ and fragments of the old London Wall.
Contrary to popular belief, the Barbican was not built as social housing – although its architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon also designed the nearby Golden Lane Estate. Now of course its residences are highly sought after – particularly those in the three triangular-shaped towers, which were the tallest residential towers in Europe when built. A series of highwalks connect the area to its surrounds while simultaneously demarcating it as a rare pedestrian oasis in the city – there are no roads within the Barbican. The name Barbican derives from the Latin word ‘barbecana’ meaning a bastion or fortified outpost and refers to the ancient barbecana once situated in this area. The architects have included a number of references to castles, including a crenellated wall, arrow slits and a small staircase tower that resembles a gatehouse along the western side of the complex.
Chamberlin, Powell and Bon also sought to emulate and give a modern twist to West End Squares and European formal gardens – there are eight acres of gardens and lakes across the site, but as many of the larger ones are for residents only they are often overlooked. Frobisher Crescent, meanwhile, is reminiscent of a spa town crescent. A semi-circular motif is repeated across the Estate, and even used in the Arts Centre’s branding, possibly referencing the semi-circular remains of the London Wall near St Giles’. The mediterranean use of barrel vaults (also semi-circular), as seen in Greek island church roofs, was another reference point. The biggest influence – as acknowledged by Powell – on the Barbican’s architects was Le Corbusier. The use of pilotis – the large circular columns holding up the apartments above the lakes being the most notable example of this – is textbook Corbusier. The rounded balconies used on the towers and elsewhere strongly recall the curved lines of his Notre Dame du Haut.
And if you’ve always wondered why the Arts Centre is mainly located underground, this is because it was a late inclusion in the design and it was hoped this lower postion would prevent noise spilling over into the already completed residential areas. Another concession to the residents was the creation of the conservatory to hide the Barbican Theatre’s very tall fly towers (where stage sets and the like are stored directly above the stage). The section of the tube that runs underneath the lake is the only part of the underground to be supported on rubber bearings – also aimed at noise reduction.
Although planning for the Barbican began in the 1950s, the residences weren’t completed until the early 1970s and the Arts Centre only opened in 1982 (it is celebrating its 30th this year) – giving us some idea of the massive scale of the project. Chamberlin died in 1978 before the Barbican was completed. If you’d like to learn more about the Barbican’s history and architecture I highly recommend taking one of the Arts Centre’s 90-minute Architecture Tours, or the Hidden Barbican Tours, 75-minute behind-the-scenes tours which will take you to backstage areas and up the fly tower. Tours cost £8/6; check the website for details as times vary across the year.